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'We are a democratic country but there is a limit'

Israel Police chief calls for ‘shutting down’ social media during civil unrest

‘This is already war’: Commissioner says online platforms drove citizens out onto the streets during the May 2021 Arab-Jewish riots

Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai seen during a visit in the southern city of Ashkelon, May 18, 2021. (Flash90)
Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai seen during a visit in the southern city of Ashkelon, May 18, 2021. (Flash90)

Israel Police commissioner Kobi Shabtai said that in any future outbreaks of severe civil unrest, social media platforms should be shut down in order to halt the spread of violence.

Shabtai asserted in an interview that during Arab-Jewish violence in May 2021, social media platforms helped drive civilians to the streets to participate in riots, and that closing them down for a limited period is a necessary step despite democratic norms.

“I am of the opinion that in such circumstances the [social] networks need to be blocked,” Shabtai told Yedioth Ahronoth in an interview to be fully published on Friday.

“This is already war. The social media networks were the ones that drove people out [into the streets]. I’m talking about a broad shutdown of the networks. Put out [the fire], calm everything down, and when the situation is calm open back up,” he said, in an excerpt from the interview published Wednesday.

“We are a democratic country but there is a limit,” Shabtai added.

Facing a torrent of criticism for his remarks, the police chief’s office clarified in a statement Wednesday that he was referring to “a scenario in the most extreme circumstances in which there is a danger to Israeli democracy and to the security of the state, in the event that there is an uprising that combines broad elements of terrorism within the State of Israel.”

His statement added that he was referring to blocking “those inciting to carry out terror attacks and take to the streets when there are hundreds of thousands of such comments fanning the flames of the event.”

A burned-out car following riots in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod, May 23, 2021. (Flash90)

Three people were killed and hundreds more hurt in days of violent unrest in cities with mixed Arab-Jewish populations in May 2021, some of the worst inter-communal violence since the state’s founding,

A report by the state ombudsman into the disturbances released in July specifically noted the police’s failure to adequately monitor social media platforms.

The report pointed specifically to a three-year delay in the rollout of a social media monitoring system, meaning that when the riots broke out, the police did not have an operational, broad intelligence gathering system for online platforms.

Shabtai’s comments drew strong condemnation from politicians on both the left and right of the spectrum who asserted his proposal was undemocratic.

MK Gilad Kariv of the center-left Labor party said the remarks were “unacceptable” and that “using the methods that characterize anti-democratic regimes should not be considered.” He added, however, that the police must be provided with “the means to deal with large-scale violent events.”

The leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party, Bezalel Smotrich, said Shabtai’s comments were “outrageous and anti-democratic,” and criticized him more generally for his handling of the May 2021 riots.

Shabtai, in his comments published Wednesday, also addressed the letter of warning sent to him, to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others by the State Commission of Inquiry into the Mount Meron disaster, alerting him that he will likely be found responsible in part for the April 2021 crush, in which 45 men and boys died.

Shabtai said he would not resign and noted that “there was an inclination among everyone that the event should take place and there were political elements who called on the masses to go to the event.”

According to a Channel 12 report, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Aryeh Deri, sent an official request to Public Security Minister Amir Ohana ahead of the event, saying that “anyone who wants to come [to Meron] should be allowed to do so.”

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